Carbon Offset

It’s end of semester and students around the world are having to justify their design choices. Some will rely on case studies to substitute for experience while others will depend upon the facticity of ambient site criteria. Still others will attempt to justify their design choices using statistics gleaned from surveys. All these methods have a place and a horrible building probably won’t result if all of them are followed. None however, can substitute for having a design idea. Here and now, I’m going to define a design idea as a “deep” calculation of site conditions – but not that deep. It’s not magic and it’s not art. Simply go have a look at the site, see what’s going on, and make some decisions based on what you see. If you become aware of anything else you think is relevant, then incorporate it into your calculation.

“I think context affects the design … as clues come from the surroundings. I’ll work with context on a more esoteric level. Our work isn’t meant to fit-in in the conventional way, but to key in and accentuate the energy of what’s around it”

I’m not backtracking on my stance of last week by saying there is a sense in which this Zaha Hadid quote makes sense. I don’t believe she alone was privy to the genius loci of a place or even that such a thing exists, but I do believe a site has many tangible and perfectly reasonable things a building can and, on occasion, must react to and that those will also evoke various intangible associations [or forces, energies] and make certain design choices seem more apt for a particular location. Whether anyone else believes them or not is another matter. [c.f. Architecture Myths #17: Genius Loci, 4. EXTRACT]

When a building is going to last until long after we’re all dead, you don’t want to be remembered as the person who screwed up some wonderful site. The most frighteningly spectacular site I was ever asked to produce a proposal for was this one.

Having a view means you’re visible. This site had views over Chatham Docks and could be seen by everyone on trains from London following the Medway River before crossing it to enter Rochester, town of Charles Dickens. Worse, the site could be seen behind Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral just prior to entering the town proper. Not wanting to be remembered as the one who screwed it up, I played it safe.

And I still think it was the best thing I could have done. Any sensitive site is a huge responsibility but the stakes are higher with gateway and landmark sites because stakeholder expectations are so much greater. This next building I’ll be discussing more in future posts. It’s Dubai’s upcoming Museum of the Future, an in-your-face building alongside Emirates Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road.

A little farther up the road is Interchange 1, shown in 1974 and 2017 in the two images below. The apartment building “on the corner” is still there and known locally as The Toyota Building even though the eponymous neon that flashed TOYOTA alternately in English and Arabic vanished last year. I miss it but, frankly, I must have looked at that neon for at least six years and rare were the weeks when all letters and words lit and flashed as intended.

The project I set the students was to reimagine The TOYOTA Building as a vertical forest apartment building called SKY GARDENS – a name I encouraged them to take literally. However, you could imagine an office scenario where your boss comes over and tells you to stop what you’re doing and come up with an idea a 25-storey vertical forest apartment building on this site. Either way, the problem is the same. What do you do? How do you start? It’s time to get inspired – and quick! Sure, you could always “key-into and accentuate the energy of what’s around it” but what if there’s already too much energy around? This next photograph was taken from the existing building. It has a certain awesome beauty.

Design that engages with the natural world is typically adorable and satisfyingly resonant but how does one engage visually and poetically (i.e. meaning-fully) with the artificial world?

It’s safer and more responsible to begin not with esoterica but with the obvious and tangible characteristics. Any building on this particular site is going to be very visible from all directions. It will be approached every morning by about 400,000 vehicles heading south towards Abu Dhabi. At this interchange, some will exit right to Jumeirah and others will exit left to Dubai Mall. Moreover, Dubai Metro will be carrying about 13,000 passengers past the site each hour. My first thought was that the building should be cylindrical and not have a main facade or orientation preferring any one direction over another. It is an interchange, after all. For the same reason, this building should not “turn towards” Burj Khalifa like many nearby buildings but would instead indicate the corner as a turning point.

Not only would any building on the site be highly visible, but it also would be highly and constantly visible from viewpoints that aren’t stationary. One problem with a cylindrical building is that it would present an unchanging view from all directions.

This problem isn’t unique to cylindrical buildings. It’s not currently the fashion for a building to have a main or street facade. The backs of towers in particular, are mostly identical to their fronts and looking at the front side makes it very easy to imagine what the other side is like. As we might do when confronted with a piece of sculpture, we could always go around the other side and have a look, but we rarely do. One good thing about unorthodox geometries is that they hold the promise of unexpected views as a moving viewpoint changes. In passing, images of such unorthodox curvatures are media favorites as they provide apparent evidence for the conceit of architecture as frozen music. In reality though, the buildings stay resolutely and disappointingly inanimate and only appear to change shape when an observer moves around it. To that observer, the thrill is of seeing a curvature change much like the apparent shape change of a tumbling asteroid.

Buildings have no obligation to entertain speeders-by but it’s reasonable enough to want a building to be engaging for the one or two seconds one might glance at it. But let’s be clear. All buildings present a different view according to the distance and angle of the observer. This isn’t to be over-rated as “cinematic” or “four-dimensional design” since most people move through space – buildings don’t. The building on the left (below) relies upon the asteroid effect to surprise us. The balconies on the building on the right produce a constantly changing rippling effect where the building is seen against the sky and this pattern changes with the angle and distance of the observer. [This design study is about twenty years old. The idea was to have a building for which the only decoration was shadows. Curved shadows on a curved surface worked best and made the building act like a giant sundial from which one could guess the time and season. Call it recycling if you will, but if not for this site then when?] I felt this architectural device and its effect would be part of the solution.

This reddish-gold beast of a building proposed for 50 metres to the south is Wasl Tower by UNStudio, with sustainability engineering by Werner Sobek. It’s currently at 35 storeys. So another major part of the problem was how a G+25 apartment building could hold its own when such a building is adjacent? It’s a David and Goliath situation. I thought it necessary to confound the scale to make my proposed building appear larger than it is and stand proud with dignity rather than brute force. If all this could be done without compromising the shape and structure then so much the better. Both these next buildings confound scale through pattern. Bosco Verticale hides scale indicatorssuch as windows and balconies. (Trees are tree-scale, not human scale.) The building will always be as big as it is, but its scale is disguised. The sun study building has a level of balconies every floor but their regular horizontal and vertical offsets create dominant diagonal lines that confound the perception of floor levels.

Bosco Verticale also confounds scale by not having a pattern we associate with buildings. A similar sense of the surreal can be seen in both the following images. On the left is the 1991 artwork Camouflaged History by Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler and on the right is Emile Aillaud’s 1976 Les Tours Aillaud in Paris. Patterns of windows don’t dominate either.

This was the pattern I opted for. It’s neither camouflage, nor Pucci print, nor Matisse. It’ll do fine.

When buildings that are a part of history are being replaced, it’s always good to provide a memory of what was there before. I went for signage. The Toyota Building may have represented modernity in Dubai in 1974 but it’s not remembered for its architecture but now, as then, the site remains a good place for some welcoming advertising and the revenue it brings.

I’d already decided to top my cylindrical proposal with a cylindrical sign and only later remembered the 1963 San-ai (Dream Centre) Building by Shōji Hayashi, the then chief architect of Nikken Sekkei, in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Because my proposal will be seen from all sides, I’d also like my huge daylight-readable LED display to revolve. This insanely redundant functionality is a cute design idea but its real function is to be a decoy sacrificial one.

Tokyo Ginza 4-chome intersection [Photo: © Trevor Dobson CC2.0]

So far this discussion has been about working with the conditions of the site but the requirement for a vertical forest goes very much against the nature of not only the site but Dubai in general. One thing Dubai lacks is forests. Whether this exercise is an excuse to make up for that, I don’t know. I’m not going to ponder if putting trees on buildings is just another form of ornament or whether the only difference between this proposal and its neighbour under construction is that this proposal wears its decorative carbon lightly rather than embedding it in its structure,

I’m taking the vertical forest condition to be a client requirement and, in Dubai, it could very well easily be. So here’s a view from Bosco Verticale and a quick montage illustrating a proposed Dubai view.

And here’s how it turned out. It practically designed itself. Inspiration, whatever that is, had little if anything to do with it. The building turned out just fine. I wouldn’t mind seeing it there.

These next two images had nothing to do with the design but I’d understand if someone said they were reminded of them. On the left is Hans Hollein’s Sparkplug high-rise project from 1964. Much like his more famous aircraft carrier, this collage juxtaposes two incongruous elements and then conceptually unites them by making us think of them as building and landscape (and, in passing, an example of Size to EXTRACT). [c.f. 4: EXTRACT] The image on the right is a generic René Magritte sky and a much more direct association.

I also wasn’t aware of these next two associations but am sure they were lurking in the back of my mind somewhere. Karl Schwanzer’s 1972 BMW Headquarters in Munich has a scale that belies its size and also has an automobile company/signage connection. I don’t claim to understand how neural pathways work but I expect my recent exposure to the buildings of Friedensreich Hundertwasser in Vienna this summer might have lessened my resistance to:

  • using a supergraphic on a building to confound its scale,
  • placing windows in an apparently whimsical manner, again to confound the scale,
  • using color in general, but especially blue, and especially when seen in conjunction with
  • loads of plants.

Finally, here’s a quick drive-by animation showing an apparent motion.

In my next post I want to talk about the internal planning.


2 thoughts on “Carbon Offset

  1. Hugh D. Lester

    A tour de force exploration of designing within the context from a ‘building as icon’ perspective, but what to do when the building’s function necessitates that the building be designed from the inside out, and that only the skin of the resulting massing may be adjusted in order to either dampen or heighten the resulting form within its context?

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      It’s far more difficult because any hidden generator is never going to bounce off contextual elements visually, and maybe evoke those reinforcing (or contradicting) associations we call meaning and are quick to associate with beauty. For years I’ve tried to promote a beauty of building performance and to plant the idea that unseen factors have their own form of beauty and which is possibly more valid than one based on purely visual criteria. Successful design with these unseen criteria is pigeonholed as Functionality, Efficiency or Sustainability and thus neutered as a potential challenge to the historic primacy of visual criteria. There’s a new challenge with the current notion of lo-res architecture which, if I understand it correctly, means the use of low-tech means to accomplish more and without making fetishizing advanced technologies or design techniques. I’ll be interested to see how far this notion gets. I see my little TOYOTA building as an example of lo-tech architecture. I know the capping sign is a sacrificial design idea and probably the supergraphic is also. Everything else is very low-tech and conventional. It’s just some columns and slabs holding up a cylindrical wall and some balconies cantilevered from that. You could probably even take away the trees and you’d still have a decent building. Apartment buildings probably aren’t a very good example of inside-out design as, on the inside, they can be pretty much anything you want them to be but next week I’ll describe how the structure internal to the building gets inhabited. The amount of variation that can be achieved within fixed and very immobile elements such as major structural elements is probably what interests me most right now.

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